The metaphor of the black hole: from mass society to the contemporary dystopian imagery

The metaphor of the black hole: from mass society to the contemporary dystopian imagery

By Dr. Nello Barile

I met Jean Baudrillard in the late 1990s at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome, where he was having a show of his photographs. I was a student, writing my thesis greatly influenced by the books of the French scholar, however, his presentation left me a little baffled. The escape towards the analogue dimension, towards the ability of photography to recover the moment of the shot, seemed to me a rearguard operation compared to the formidable reflections on the digital that I had found in The Perfect Crime (Baudrillard 1996). The first issue of Duellanti, an Italian film magazine, reports my discussion with the scholar, to whom I asked a question in the Q&A phase. How come, from the elaboration of a theoretical competitive thinking, aiming to be faster than the digital, do we now move on to a rearguard phase in an attempt to recover the authenticity of the analogical dimension? After a long answer, I was able to meet my myth and converse with him for a few minutes. My question was the result of a more extensive elaboration of Baudrillard’s thought on the relationship between communication, science and philosophy, which concerns the metaphor of the black hole.

Already in the text In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities or The End of the Social (Baudrillard 1983), the author fixes some key points, which will then be taken up and pushed towards their more logical consequences in The Illusion of the End (1994), with respect to which this text stands in a complementary relationship. The philosopher almost seems to grasp the paradox according to which mass society asserts itself precisely when the Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm enters a crisis. Thus, in spite of a positivist sociology from which the idea of ​​a society, of a market, of mass media derives, our vision is much more complex. The myth of an objective observer, the atomization of individuals, social physics, economic and technological determinism, etc., are all examples of the attempt to apply an obsolete paradigm to a phenomenon, which in terms of complexity, competes with or surpasses the physical ones, which is an aspect that even the classical sociologists, from A. Comte to T. Parsons, had understood. Baudrillard’s ability lies in playing with a substantial ambiguity of the term ‘mass’ which, on closer inspection, is suspended between a corpuscular and a wave dimension. Thus, from the first chapter it is clear that the term ‘mass’ does not indicate so much a mechanistic quality of the social, but above all an electromagnetic conception. The masses do not so much express a tangible concreteness, as in the expression “critical mass” that insists on the fact that there is something rather than nothing. What characterizes them is their “making mass”, or the way in which they absorb “all the electricity of the social and political and neutralise it forever” (p. 2).

In this lies the great relevance of Baudrillard’s thought, not only in his challenge to the Newtonian paradigm but also in the idea of ​​overcoming a materialist conception of the masses, to examine its “electronic” transformation, almost in the wake of McLuhan (2001), to whom Baudrillard in other texts often refers. With the difference that, if the latter was decidedly more fascinated by the progress of quantum physics, so much so that he often quoted Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, Baudrillard goes more in the direction of astrophysics, as if to found a new relativistic anthropology. The notion of black hole is very current today. For example, the splendid philosophical film Interstellar by Christopher Nolan (2014) managed to overturn it into an eschatological and positive metaphor. Or more recently in Decadence: Life and Death of the Judeo-Christian Civilization, by Michel Onfray (2017), the black hole is examined as a vitalistic conception instead. On the contrary, in Baudrillard’s text, ‘mass’ is introduced almost as a neutral category. In fact, it does not reflect the social, an incorrect expression because “it still evokes an idea of ​​full substance”; on the contrary it reflects “the masses function as a gigantic black hole which inexorably inflects, bends and distorts all energy and light radiation approaching it: an implosive sphere, in which the curvature of spaces accelerates, in which all dimensions curve back on themselves and ‘involve’ to the point of annihilation, leaving in their stead only a sphere of potential engulfment” (Baudrillard p. 9). The author deepens this discourse in subsequent texts, from Simulacrums and Simulations to The Other Seen by Himself, in which schizophrenia is depicted as a sort of black hole of the subject, and similarly later in The Illusion of the End and in The Perfect Crime. The black hole is therefore not merely a metaphor for the death of the social, but perhaps represents its most proper fulfilment.

The implosion process which is intrinsic to the nature of mass, which is once again an analogy with Marshall McLuhan (2001) who first spoke of the implosion of the Electronic Galaxy, is therefore accelerated, intensified by the entropic action of technology and consumption. Faced with this challenge, sociology itself is put in check, since it first postulates the mass as one of the key concepts through which it carries out its analysis of the social. If “sociology […] survives only on the positive and definitive hypothesis of the social. The reabsorption, the implosion of the social escapes it. The hypothesis of the death of the social is also that of its own death” (p. 4). From sociology to political science the step is short. The hypothesis of a substantial passivity of the mass with respect to a manipulative activity of power (p. 13) is equally misleading. If until the Renaissance the politician stages a sort of self-referential game that mimics the machines of the theater and perspective, in his absence of a truth, with the French Revolution the politician “inflects himself, in a decisive way […] he loads himself with a reference social, the social invests it” (p. 15). At that point the people, the will of the people, appears on the theater of political representation. Thanks especially to liberal and socialist thought which postulates “a dissolution of the political at some point of history” (p. 18), the social turns out to be the real winner of a dispute which, however, also inaugurates its own decline. Thus the “the energy of the social is reversed, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities specificity is lost, its historical quality and its ideality vanish in favour of a configuration where not only the political becomes volatilised, but where the social itself no longer has any name. Anonymous. THE MASS. THE MASSES” (p. 19). As can be seen, there is a certain representation of the masses, which today we consider outdated, such as precisely the question of anonymity which today is instead replaced by an exasperated protagonism of leaders, voters, consumers, etc. However, the overall picture that is built is still useful. To reaffirm the topicality of this approach, we can follow two trajectories.

The first is that of information and its dissemination, which is an aspect that is not addressed systematically here as in other texts but only hinted at. As the attempt to “bombard” the inert mass of the social to probe it (thanks to polls), activate it, get it out of its proverbial indifference, is bankruptcy. It refers to a “dialectic of meaning” (p. 10) that does not take hold of the object in question, which is neither object nor subject. The goal of the politician is to use information to rescue the silent majorities from their own silence, to free their energy to “do the social”. It is also a question of structuring the masses “by injecting them with information” (p. 25). This process produces a sort of “fission” of the social by the violence of the media and information. Beyond an unscrupulous use of concepts borrowed from various registers, such as that of emulsion or precisely fission, and while exaggerating with the clichés derived from an old mediological reflection (bombing and injection in Bullet Theory style), here Baudrillard poses a fundamental question that he will develop better in his later works. Information, which by its nature performs a negentropic function or a reduction of entropy (physical, social, media, etc.), is transformed into a means of further production of disorder at a given moment.

The relevance of this discourse is cyclical. It recurs every season in which new media proliferate. More recently, in the age of social media, Baudrillard became a direct reference for scholars analyzing the process of saturation and multiplication of layers in the daily experience (Hodkinson 2016), and also the process as colonization of real time determining a sort of temporal implosion (Lovink 2012).

Even today, with the inflation of apps that perform any function, there are artificial intelligence systems that would like to simplify consumption and that mainly have the task of learning from the data extracted from the specific consumer who interacts with them. All this continues to produce a hypertrophy that breaks down and reassembles the mass. The masses are satisfied with being a mass, or rather with being a “good conductor of information” (p. 28) but in doing so they decompose and implode into tribes, in the multitude, in hyper-individualism, in neo-narcissism, and the like. If the scientific metaphor anticipates some aspects of contemporary information, the sociological one reflects on an even more obsessive issue for us today: the relationship between mass and people. In fact, there has been talk of a mass of peasants when they have never represented a mass (p. 5). Nor the mass of workers. But the mass “has no sociological reality. It has nothing to do with any real population, body or specific social aggregate” (p. 5). In light of the current transformations, which decompose mass society into an increasingly demassified, disintermediated and customized system, Baudrillard’s analysis can still provide us with valuable insights. When we reflect dialectically on the overcoming of the masses by the new populist people, we forget that the masses already exercised this tendency to reject the schemes proposed by a first attempt at Enlightenment rationalization (subject/object, institutions, equivalence of voters, etc.).

Following this abstract way of thinking, we find an unlimited sum of equivalent individuals: 1 +1 +1 – such is the sociological definition – but somehow neutralized, that is to say neither one nor the other. There is no longer any polarity between the one and the other in the mass. This is what causes that vacuum and inwardly collapsing effect in all those systems, which survive on the separation and distinction of poles (two, or many in more complex systems). This is what makes the circulation of meaning within the mass impossible…(p. 6).

For this “black box of all referents” (ibid.), even the referendum which would like to indicate the very substance of the demos “has replaced the political referent” (p. 20), thus falling back into the game of simulation. As if the masses, who resisted the impact of information, at a certain point absorb the simulation virus themselves. The author anticipates here a reasoning that he will re-propose in The Spirit of Terrorism, after 9/11, when he explains the fact that reality has become more extreme and spectacular than Hollywood, with the idea that it has absorbed the virus of spectacularization. The process of disarticulation of the mass, which in hindsight is already completely contained in its intrinsic qualities, is exacerbated by the transition from general media to digital ones. The philosopher also identifies the crisis point of the old tools that guaranteed the leaders of the masses the ability to test the pulse of public opinion: “now polls, tests, the referendum, media are devices which no longer belong to a dimension of representations, but to one of simulation. They no longer have a referent in view, but a model” (p. 20). The same disintermediation that today indicates the great discontinuity between old and new politics seems here to be the technological implementation of an atavistic resistance of the masses against the sociological and politological attempts to reduce them, assimilate them, tame them through stable conceptual grids, or to decompose them and absorb them into institutional subjects and intermediate bodies such as parties, trade unions, and organizations.

In this book a brilliant idea is sketched out which will then be taken up again, as I anticipated, in The Illusion of the End and more recently in The Agony of Power (2010). I am referring to that Larsen Effect, which indicates that “‘the excessive proximity of the event and its diffusion in real time generates undecidability, a virtuality of the event which strips it of its historical dimension and subtracts it from memory. We are immersed in a generalized Larsen Effect. Wherever there is this promiscuity, this collision of poles, there is mass” (Baudrillard 2010, p. 47). In the same book, Baudrillard identified reality shows as the agents of confusion between existence and its double. It is therefore in the space-time junction of the nineties that the theses prepared elsewhere by Jean Baudrillard are realized. In it the decline of the mass regime takes place and the still not entirely clear beginning of a new regime of demassification and post-spectacularization.

The black hole is also one of the fundamental concepts on which science fiction has reflected as an access channel to parallel dimensions. It indicates a phenomenon of an astrophysical nature but, already in John Wheeler’s scientific formulation, it expresses a communication problem. To identify a black hole, it is in fact necessary for a beam of light to be able to cross its border, called the “event horizon”, and thus testify to the very existence of the object from which it emanates. Therefore, the black hole is only negatively recognizable as a place of non-communication, or as a place that is unable to communicate its own existence. In the black hole hypothesis, the mass of a star grows steadily until the energy that fuels it is depleted. The mass, at that point, collapses on itself. In a situation of infinite density, the temporal deformation is maximum, which is a direct function of the gravity of a body and therefore of its mass. Thus, in the vicinity of a star, the time warp is greater than that of Earth. When a star reaches its maximum expansion and consumes all its fuel, it implodes due to the massive weight of the matter that composes it.

In gravitational collapse the star contracts and its density tend towards infinity. If the spatial contraction of the star exceeds the Schwarzschild radius which delimits the event horizon, the density becomes infinite, thus also the gravity and with it the effect of time warping. The star thus turns into a black hole and reaches the end of time. According to Stephen Hawking, if an astronaut were to enter a black hole, they would immediately reach the region of the end of time (Hawking, 2016).

Like the astronaut in the psychedelic final sequence of 2001 A Space Odyssey, the cybernaut, immersed in the infinite habitual spaces of information, has all of his time horizontally. Time is spatialized in the sense that it has a merely positional value, as Einstein’s relativity also teaches, in overcoming the classical distinction between time and space. The black hole is also the apogee or terminal stage of a star’s entropy. If a certain allusion has been made to this object of astrophysics in various science fiction films, in the last few years it has become a narrative device for developing new dystopian tales.

Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001) staged the hallucinated experience of a young American teenager in the 1980s, whose delirium crosses and superimposes some daring astrophysical theories on black holes and presumed parallel dimensions. Therefore, schizophrenia as a socio-cultural phenomenon that comes into contact, in the imaginary dimension, with other discourses pertaining to different scientific domains, but also as the very product of the integration between these systems. Today we are faced with a new paradox: first science and then technology have shown the emptiness of the universalistic claim of the mechanistic and positivist paradigm. If science has disassembled that model by demonstrating the profound discontinuity of space-time, whose nature changes as multiple variables change, technology has profoundly transformed that apperceptive system thanks to the potential of digital simulation, interactivity and telepresence. The schizophrenic illumination and its relationship with the new paradigm of reality has been brightly investigated by Baudrillard in several books. As when he states that “…the schizophrenic is not, as generally claimed, characterized by his loss of touch with reality, but by the absolute proximity to and total instantaneousness with things”, this “overexposure to the transparency of the world” (Baudrillard 1988, p. 27) is very similar to the experience of a user overwhelmed by the saturation of information in the digital world.

If Donnie Darko plays with the scientific metaphor, Interstellar (2014) elevates the film story to the rank of a definitive theory on science and the ends of humanity. Philosophy of science, catastrophe theory and an investigation into human nature that moves far beyond the modest objectives of the social sciences, are the theoretical tools through which Christopher Nolan builds a new totally secular eschatology. At the center of the work is the crisis of our time which deprives human beings of their place at the center of the universe. At first it presents the idea of ​​the ghosts that haunt the childhood of Cooper’s daughter, the legacy of an archaic conception to which the grandfather does not deny a certain support. Then the film reveals instead the hypothesis of the aliens that the small group of NASA scientists could have guided humanity towards salvation. The crisis of our time is both related to values ​​and practice. A post-growth society has totally disowned the underlying value system of industrial society to focus on a return to land and blood. Even aerospace companies, which had celebrated the superiority of the United States and the West, are reinterpreted in the mode of an anti-development denial that teaches students an alternative truth about history: NASA’s companies were just an expensive expedient to symbolically win confrontation with the USSR. As in the desperate scenario narrated by the film The Road by John Hillcoat (2009), here too an indefinite environmental catastrophe hits the planet destroying the last agricultural reserves while sandstorms make the air unbreathable. Just with that sand will be written the message that allows you to discover the launch base from which the company will start. Micheal Caine, accustomed to the best dystopian stories from Children of Men by Alfonso Cuaròn (2006) to Inception by Nolan himself, this time plays the part of a scientist in search of the formula that allows you to control gravity and therefore time. He devises two rescue plans for the human race: Plan A involves the evacuation of American citizens to an earth-like planet; plan B instead the simple repopulation of the same planet through cryogenization and assisted reproduction. Therefore, according to him, the goal is not “to save the planet but to leave it”. His daughter, who leaves with Cooper and two other members, is the practical demonstration of a law which, although borrowed from a large-scale New Age, represents the very foundation of all reality. Love, which connects beings years away in space-time, is the fundamental law of the universe of which gravity is simply the translation into functional and communicative terms. The law of attraction meets Newton and Einstein but the director’s vision moves to a higher analytical level, far beyond a simple new age pantheism. While the space station goes through the space-time tunnel (the wormhole), her hand meets that of an entity that according to scientists inhabits a five-dimensional universe and that almost greets her on the journey to the other end of the universe. The long sequence on the exploration of the planets only serves to dramatize the spatial distance and the time dilation so that an hour spent in the vicinity of the black hole corresponds to countless years spent on earth. As Baudrillard stated years ago:

A certain type of slowness or deliberation (i.e. a certain speed, but not too much), a certain distance, yet not too much, a certain liberation (the energy of rupture and change), but not too much — all these are necessary for this condensation, for the signifying crystallization of events to take place, one that we call history — this type of coherent unfolding of causes and effects we call the real (Baudrillard 1996).

In the relativistic experience of a black hole, the sense of reality and the sense of history simultaneously collapse. The proximity to the horizon of events almost serves to train Cooper’s gaze on the things of men, but above all of his loved ones and therefore of himself. The video with the synthesis of his son’s 23-year history enjoyed in a few hours condenses an enormous emotional mass in a short moment. Inception also explored the dilation of time through the introspective dimension of limbo: the deep sleep in which time reaches its maximum dilation. Compared to that world explored through introspection, in which oneiric worlds were built through dream design, here we have an inverse movement: the exploration of the infinitely vast that comes to grasp the very depth of being through a perfect fusion between physics, technology and psychology. The mission is driven by an evolutionary scheme, not only to find a favorable environment for the continuation of the species but also the idea that, precisely at the moment closest to death, human beings can find the energy to overcome danger. The whole mission was planned from a clear and simple idea: we need to think as a species and not as a sum of individuals. A concept that tragically reveals itself when Morph reveals to the crew members the terrible lie that moved the whole expedition: the non-existence of plan B. There is no return to earth after the exploration. The mission is a lifeboat for the pioneers of a new world. The random element precipitates events towards the unpredictable. To save Amelia, Cooper disengages from the ship and plummets into the black hole, violently reaching the end time region. A sort of extreme serendipity for which what was until then conceived as the element of disturbance to the accomplishment of the mission – due to the fact that the very high temporal deformation increased the time lag, the crew’s action time and that of the earth which was inexorably falling towards catastrophe.

Cooper’s heroic gesture is rewarded by the serendipic revelation that demonstrates the veracity of Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin’s maxim: “Where the danger is greater, salvation is greater”. If some theories on black holes claimed the impossibility of crossing the event horizon without being torn apart by infinite gravity, Cooper has this experience that allows him to extend his perception to an additional dimension, as in the case of the square in Abbot’s novel Flatland that experiences the three-dimensional sphere in its two-dimensional world (coming to hypothesize the existence of n dimensions). Cooper too must understand how to operate in a condition in which space-time is arranged in front of him in layout of a library made of a huge number of strings. On the other side is his daughter in different stages of her development. There is he himself who is about to tell her about the departure into space. There is the watch that has left them and which becomes the communication tool precisely because gravity is the sum force that crosses the universe and connects its most remote parts. But gravity is only the physical and communicative manifestation of an even more essential force, which holds distant things together. Cooper’s discovery is mind-blowing. It was he himself who dropped the books in the apparently haunted library, as well as touched Amelia Brand’s hand as they passed through the wormhole; it was neither ghosts, nor aliens, nor God. The next stage in the development of humanity occurs in the pure immanence of the universe, in the ability of mankind to go beyond the limits of space-time.

Along the lines of the previous two, the American series Stranger Things offers an even more commercial, everyday and pop definition of the concept of black hole. Especially the first season can be summarized by the formula: Donnie Darko + Interstellar + Videodrome = Stranger Things. In the American province of the eighties, pervaded by TV and new consumption, three (or four) boys come across absurd events determined by the opening of a gate (closed in the second season by Eleven’s telepathic powers) due to secret experiments that have opened the doors to a parallel dimension. In other words, somehow the black hole is translated and grafted into the territory and into everyday life, in its horror and terrifying variant. The upside-down is an essential dimension that surrounds and completes physical and daily reality and that can be understood by the young protagonists through the interpretation of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game.


  1. If in Interstellar the imaginary even comes to develop a model of black hole which will then be taken up by physicists to deepen their research, in Stranger Things the imaginary of Dungeons & Dragons is the map itself that allows you to interpret roles, structures and ontologies of the upside-down. For this reason, the character Joyce Byers (who is the mother of one of the boys) is initially stigmatized as insane (as in Donnie Darko), precisely because she begins to see something that others do not see. The upside-down keeps everything connected, so much so that inside it both the monster and the victims can communicate remotely (like Copper in the black hole with his daughter). The mother recognizes that her son sends her discreet messages through the interference of the electricity grid, which will allow her to draw the very map of the upside down with a sort of handcrafted infographic. In Stranger Things II, the astrophysical conception of the upside down, which was already previously explained by the science professor with the image of the sheet folded in two and pierced by a pencil, precisely a wormhole, joins the systemic-quantum one which instead tells a sentient system (an organism) capable of communicating the geolocation of enemies in real time to the monsters that inhabit it. If Interstellar and Stranger Things overturn the dystopian dimension in a happy ending, in Donnie Darko’s ending we understand how dystopia has no end, indeed it has already been completely realized previously. We can add another “tyranny” to the ones analyzed by Mike Watson (2019), after the 1) horror-magic tyranny of the Upside Down, and 2)
  2. the technological tyranny of the military apparatus;, the most powerful is 3)
  3. The tyranny of brands and commodities in the Eighties, the age that I call “profusion” according to another concept elaborated by Baudrillard in the second half of the Seventies (1998).

A circular relationship is established between the level of social transformation of time and that of its imaginary projection in which technology acts as a commutator between scientific formalizations and the everyday. Media representation in this way works at the same time as a mirror and a shaper of the social reality (Hodkinson 2016). The relativistic notion of blocked time, discussed by Baudrillard as a consequence of the digital transformation, affects both the imaginary, which represents it in the ways indicated, and the society that is transformed on the basis of it.


Baudrillard, J., 1983, In the shadow of the silent majorities…or the end of the social. And other essays,  New York City: Semiotext(e), Inc.
Baudrillard, J., 1988, The Ecstasy of Communication. Foreign Agents Series, Brooklyn, N.Y., Autonomedia.
Baudrillard, J., 1994,The Illusion of the End, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Baudrillard, J., 1996, The Perfect Crime, London: Verso.
Baudrillard, J.,1998, The Consumer Society. London: Sage.
Baudrillard, J., 2010, The Agony of Power, New York City: Semiotext(e), Inc.
Hawking, S. 1988, A Brief History of Time; From the Big Bang to Black Holes, New York City: Bantam Books.
Hodkinson, P., 2016, Media, Culture and Society: An Introduction. London: Sage.
Lovink, G., 2012, Networks without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media. Cambridge: Polity.
McLuhan, M., 2001, Understanding Media. London: Routledge (originally published 1964).
Onfray M., 2017, Décadence. Vie et mort du judéo-christianisme, Paris: Flammarion, 2017.
Watson, M., 2019, Can the Left Learn to Meme?: Adorno, Video Gaming, and Stranger Things. Winchester, UK & Washington, DC: John Hunt Publishing.

If you have found a spelling error, please, notify us by selecting that text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *